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Is a Ketogenic Diet Safe? Or is it a Way of Eating That Could Unlock our Full Human Potential?
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Yuri: What’s up, guys? Yuri here with another episode of the Super Nutrition Academy Health Class. In today’s episode we are featuring a good buddy of mine who is one of the master self-experimenters, as we will soon discover. His name is Ben Greenfield.
I’ve known Ben for a couple years and followed some of his work and it’s pretty awesome stuff. He actually specializes in training triathletes, but what we’re going to discuss today is, you’re going to get a lot of benefit from what he’s doing to himself, and then we’re going to tie that back in to what that means to you.
So, just to give you a brief background on Ben, he holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in both sports science and exercise physiology. He is accredited as a personal-training and strength-conditioning coach from the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
He’s received sports nutrition certifications from the International Society of Sports Nutrition, and he’s worked with tons and tons of triathletes. He’s actually a current triathlete himself, so he’s not one of those guys who, like myself, was a high-performance; he currently is a high-performance athlete, and he’s constantly doing stuff to himself, which is always fun to learn about.
What we’re going to be discussing in today’s episode is some of the stuff that Ben’s doing with respect to ketogenesis, low-carb training, and without any further ado, welcome, Ben.
Ben: Hey. Thanks, Yuri. That was quite the introduction. You made it sound like some of the stuff that I do to myself might not actually be legal, but it is, in fact, all legal and safe and G-rated.
Yuri: Yeah, totally. I think there’s a lot of cool, a lot of benefit to be had from this because you’ve done all sorts of—and you continue to do—all sorts of kind of self-tests in terms of at-home hormone testing, and you’re constantly monitoring all this stuff, all these different markers with respect to your health. Maybe we can give our listeners some really cool resources for that as well.
And just before we get started, guys, if you want to check out Ben’s stuff, he’s at BenGreenfieldFitness.com, and let’s jump into this. Let’s start off by first defining what ketogenesis is and why it’s supposedly beneficial.
Ben: Sure. It’s the reason that if you don’t have access to food for, like, a month, you can still be alive, because your body runs out of carbohydrate after—well, it depends. If you’re running, screaming fast, you’re going to burn through all your carbohydrates in, like, an hour and a half.
And if you’re lost, wandering in a desert or whatever, it might take a full day or a couple of days. But you keep on going because you can take your body’s own storage fat and you can convert into these things called ketones.
Ketones are actually extremely metabolically favorable to burn for energy. They get turned into ATP-based energy at an efficiency rate that’s about twenty-eight percent greater than carbohydrates. You don’t have to go and get lost in the desert and starve yourself for thirty days to actually get your blood ketones up.
There’s a safer way to do it. A lot of people think about ketosis as being that state of starvation or caloric restriction, but, in fact, you can eat foods that are naturally going to raise your blood levels of ketones so that they’re available for your body to burn as a fuel or for your muscles to use as a fuel.
And you can also do some special nutritional tweaks, like kind of watch how many total grams of carbohydrate you consume each day, and when you do that, your liver starts to churn out ketones. Ketosis is essentially just a state in which your ketone bodies circulating around in your bloodstream—and there are actually three very specific molecules, called acetone, acetoacetic acid, and beta-hydroxybutyrate, and I promise that’s about the geekiest that I’ll get today. Each of those three ketones circulates in your bloodstream.
Once you reach a level where they’re at about 1.0 or 1.0 millimolar, you’re technically in a state of ketosis. Some very, very cool things happen when you get up into that state, especially if you’re trying to tap into a really energetically favorable source of fuel that is a little bit less of like a fast-burning kindling that carbohydrate.
So, there are also some really, really cool things that go on from a neural standpoint. But, basically, the mental enhancement is pretty cool too. I do a lot of writing, blogging. I do a lot of podcasting; I talk to a lot of folks.
This is a cool brain-hacking technique too, because ketones are a potent source of fuel for your brain neurons, so when you’re ketogenic, you have higher levels of what’s called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which is a brain-building factor your body produces, and a huge upregulation in the activity in your brain neurons. So, for both a mental and a physical-performance standpoint, it is, as I like to say, pretty sick stuff.
Yuri: It’s definitely pretty cool. Why don’t you describe the experiment that you’re doing on yourself with respect to ketogenesis and training for the Iron Man in Canada?
Ben: Yeah, sure. Up in your neck of the woods, your far country up north.
Yuri: Well, you probably live closer to Whistler than I do, so it’s actually closer to your neck of the woods.
Ben: Yeah, ’cause I’m in northern Washington State, so I can be across the border in four hours. But, yeah, I’m racing Iron Man Canada on August 25. Most of the literature, the blogs, the writings that you see out there that approach this whole low-carb performance thing kind of do a few different things than what I’m doing.
One is that people who are doing this tend to go what’s called cyclic low-carb, where you’ll go, let’s say, five days on a kind of a low-carb diet, where you might go in and out of this ketogenic state, and then on the weekends, you just pile on a bunch of carbs because you’re starved and you’re doing hard and heavy workouts or whatever, and then you go back into kind of a low-carb state. That’s called a cyclic low-carb diet. That’s actually something that is much, much closer to what I’ve been doing for the past two years.
Now, when you’re looking at ketogenesis, what I’m going to be doing for Iron Man Canada is, I am going to go through twelve weeks of keeping my blood ketone levels up above 1.0 mM. I’m using a breath ketone monitor; really, really cool new noninvasive science to measure that on a daily basis. And I’m going to see what happens to my body, because a lot of folks say your thyroid takes a hit.
A lot of folks say that it creates low levels of testosterone, high levels of cortisol, and basically a lot of metabolic disregulation if you are trying to combine training with a low-carb diet or with being in a state of ketosis. So, I’m going to find out whether or not that is true, and I’m also going to be taking a bunch of measures to make sure that my thyroid stays elevated, my cortisol stays low, my testosterone stays elevated.
I’m really going about this the smart way. I’m not just going to get a bunch of coconut milk or medium-chain triglyceride oil—two of the best ways to keep your ketone bodies high—and just shove that into my mouth twenty-four seven. There’re a lot of other little things you have to do if you want to do this the healthy way.
Yuri: Yeah. What’s interesting is that you are not just going to the gym three times a week for a little lift. You’re doing some pretty intense training. How does a ketogenic diet mitigate or work with the amount of inflammation that could be created with that type of training?
Ben: Well, when you look at this type of training and the way that you’d fuel it normally, you’re going to be consuming a high amount of carbohydrates—gooey sports gels and Gatorade and Powerade and sports drinks and energy bars—and there are some disease risks of high blood sugar and high sugar consumption that I personally want to avoid.
I’ve done genetic testing on myself. I know that I already have a higher-than-normal risk for type 2 diabetes. And when you’re consuming high, high amounts of sugar and carbohydrates, not only do you shove your blood sugar levels on a roller-coaster ride, but you create increased risk of cardiovascular disease; what’s called insulin insensitivity, or essentially burning out your pancreas; you create what’s called neuropathy, which means that you literally experience inflammation in your nerves when you have high levels of circulating blood sugars; and for reasons that are tied to why ketones are great fuel for your brain: cognitive impairment from basically the formation of what are advanced glycation end products.
As all these carbohydrates combine with proteins, it occurs to a much greater extent. It’s the reason that a lot of athletes, in their older years, fat with connective-tissue degradation, with joint issues, with wrinkled skin. A lot of that is not just due to time in the sun and hours spent training or time spent in a chlorinated pool. A lot of that is due to the huge amount of carbohydrates that they’re consuming.
Now, the other issue here is, let’s say, “Sure, Ben, but you could just eat carbohydrates before, during, or after your exercise session and kind of mitigate a lot of those blood sugar roller-coaster ride effects.” But the other issue here is that when you eat a lower-carbohydrate intake or you get on a ketogenic diet, if you tend to be somebody who has stomach problems—you get a lot of gas, you fart a lot, you get bloated, maybe you have what’s called dysbiosis or an imbalance of bacteria in your digestive tract—carbs feed all that stuff; carbs are an extremely fermentable fuel.
Now, I personally happen to be someone who has those types of symptoms arise as soon as I start to eat a lot of carbs, even if they’re healthy carbs. A lot of times if I’m doing lots of quinoa, and amaranth and millet and even some yogurt and especially wheat and some of those grains, I tend to get a lot of stomach issues.
And when I’m eating a lower amount of carbohydrate, I’m really not fermenting, I’m not feeding a lot of that bacteria, and my stomach feels like a million bucks, especially after a big training session or after a race. There’re some cool things that happen from a gut standpoint too.
Yuri: Yeah, definitely. That makes a lot of sense. So, for the everyday person who is not training for an Iron Man, what kind of—obviously, you’re doing kind of some self-experimentation, so it’s tough to know exactly what’s going to happen—if you’re going to blow up or if you’re going to survive.
What kind of basic advice would you give to somebody who just wants better health with respect to, is this something that they can apply to some degree in their day-to-day life?
Ben: Sure. If you’re someone who tends to get brain fog, someone who is concerned about blood sugar level roller-coaster rides, things of that nature, and you want to see what your body feels like in ketosis, you can do it, especially if you’re not training hard, it’s not as dangerous to kind of tow the line of constantly depleting the body and trying to keep levels of ketosis up.
You don’t have to go through as many weird measures as I have to go through, like eating liver and thyroid and all this weird stuff. Basically, all you need to do is, you need to get, preferably, a blood ketone monitor or a breath ketone monitor.
There are a variety of different resources out there. You could go to, like, Amazon and just type in blood ketone monitor and get something sent to your house that’s easy-peasy to take your blood ketones.
And you want to see if you can keep those above one. The way that you generally do that is, you eat a lower carbohydrate intake. Try and space your carbohydrates as much as you can, around the time that you’re working out or maybe after a workout or a time that you’re physically active, walking the dog or whatever; generally, earlier in the day is better.
And then the rest of your diet is comprised of healthy fats: avocadoes and olive oil and olives and seeds and nuts; coconut milk and coconut oil are really, really good sources because those are chockfull of what are called medium-chain triglycerides, which get converted into ketones really, really readily.
For example, in my own diet I could start off the day with something like a green smoothie, but it’s a little bit different kind of green smoothie. I’ll do kale; I’ll put some MCT or some coconut oil in there, a handful of, three or four Brazil nuts, a handful of almonds, some chia seeds, a little touch of flax oil, some cinnamon, a little chocolate powder, some stevia if I want some extra sweetness, and blend that up. That’s kind of like a ketogenic green shake that you could do in the morning.
And then for lunchtime I’ll do something like a bed of spinach, but I’ll do a bunch of extra virgin olive oil on that, throw on some avocado, some olives, some walnuts. A lot of people don’t like this, but I’m kind of a sucker for sardines, so I’ll usually toss a can of sardines on there, but you could just use extra walnuts or whatever. And that would be a sample lunch.
And then for dinner, usually for me, I’ll do something like a nice cut of fatty fish, like wild salmon or something like that, with some roasted vegetables on the side. And then pre- and postworkout, honestly, it’s usually just coconut milk or MCT oil. As unsexy as that sounds, that does tend to keep you up in ketosis.
And you do all that, you try it out, you see how you feel, and you might notice that you have a little bit extra sharpness, that you lose some extra weight. Especially if you’re concerned about blood sugar levels and things of that nature, you’re going to find that there are a lot of downstream benefits.
Yuri: That’s interesting. I think a lot of people are cognizant of the benefit of coconut oil, so it’s interesting to see how you’re applying that, as well as, I mean, your diet is probably, if you were to break it down, it looks like it’s probably fifty percent fat, which most people would freak out about, right?
It’s like, “Oh my God, I’m going to eat fat; therefore, I’m going to get fat.” But hopefully more and more people are starting to understand this: It’s actually the carbohydrates, the sugars that are more of the issue than the fat.
Obviously, you’re eating great-quality fats. So, with respect to the stuff you’re doing—you talked about using coconut oil, olive oil, avocadoes, olives, walnuts, sardines. To this point in time, have you noticed a difference in your endurance, strength, power when you’re competing or even when you’re training?
Ben: I’ve noticed two things so far, and I’m one and a half weeks into full-blown ketogenesis. And prior to that point, I would kind of go in and out of ketosis ’cause I was doing, like I mentioned, that cyclic low-carb thing.
So, the two main things that I’ve noticed, Yuri, are: number one, I’m able to focus better. I’m one of those guys who’s reading twelve books at a time and watching something on Hulu while I’m surfing on my iPhone and reading a book on my Kindle.
Yuri: While you’re biking.
Ben: Yeah, while I’m biking. A lot of that kind of natural, almost like ADD tendency has disappeared. I’ve got extreme focus.
My wife has commented on it multiple times just in the past ten days. She’s like, “You’re more present. You’re more in the now, and you’re here with us.” I’m convinced a big, big part of that is because my neurons are burning a really, really nice, clean fuel, and they’re really stabilized.
The second thing that I’ve noticed is: I’m not hungry. When it’s time to eat, I eat, but whether I’m out on a workout or whether I’m just sitting around during the day or whether I’ve gotten up in the morning or whatever, I’m not hungry.
My body is in full fatty acid utilization mode. And even a lean guy like me—I’m at about eight percent body fat—I’ve still got, with my natural body-fat stores, twenty-five to thirty thousand calories of storage fat that I can rely on, and even when I’m not eating, when I’m not drinking coconut milk or whatever, my body is tapping in to my fats incredibly, efficiently to the point where I’m just, my appetite is stabilized.
And that holds true whether I’m out riding my bike—I did a two-hour ride the other day. Normally, for a two-hour ride I’d eat something a little bit before, and I’d be pretty hungry.
I’d walk in the door and grab a shower and go storming into the kitchen and throw open the refrigerator and just be like, “Feed me now!” And I’m not hungry. I finish up and it’s just like, “Yeah, whatever. I’ll eat when I feel like it.” So, those are the two main things I’ve noticed so far.
Yuri: That’s awesome. It’s really cool because what I love about this kind of stuff is that you kind of challenge the status quo, you’re kind of experimenting on yourself, but this is really where a lot of breakthroughs or paradigm shifts occur because you go through something like this where people might look at a typical day in terms of your food intake and be like, “Well, where are your carbs? There’s no way you’re going to be able to do this.” And you can report back and say, “Well, here’s the reality.”
It really gets people to think a little bit differently with respect to food intake. Again, not to really make people’s lives any less confusing, but you have people on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, like the hardcore fruitarians who say that the fats are deadly and we should only be eating fruit and they’re doing their thing and kind of touting all the benefits of it.
And then you’ve got the complete opposite end of the spectrum, which is kind of along the lines of ketogenesis, which is saying its similar things as well. It’s interesting to see how completely different things can work for different people, maybe in some cases the same people. I’d be very interested to see how things go as you progress through all this.
Ben: Yeah, and that’s another reason I’m doing it, Yuri, is because I just get a kick out of this stuff. I like to do self-experimentation. I’ve done raw vegan; I’ve don’t Atkins; I’ve done low carb, high fat; high fat, low carb, high protein when I was a body builder.
All of this stuff is interesting to me not only because I just think it’s kind of cool to see how nutrients and what you put into your mouth affects your body—it makes you better or worse—but as somebody who’s kind of like you, I do some blogging and podcasting and try and help people out.
I think it’s also a way for me to use myself as a little bit of a guinea pig to help folks see if it’s a good way to go or not. I could wind up dead or grow a third eye off the top of my head or something like that over the next few months. And if that happens, we’ve all learned a valuable lesson.
Yuri: Or turned back the aging clock by ten years.
Ben: That would be cool. I would take that, sure.
Yuri: That would be interesting. When you really think about it, it resembles our natural diet just a little bit more perhaps when you think about Paleolithic man scouring the plains or wherever they lived, carbohydrates weren’t readily available.
You might have berries during different seasons, but other than that, unless you’re living in the tropics, it’s not like people had copious amounts of carbohydrates. For the most part it would’ve been animal flesh, some fats here and there. It’s interesting to see how the human body will adapt to that and whether it’s something favorable.
Ben: Yeah. I mean, down here in the U.S., our Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, is actually been investigating the use of ketones as a fuel for soldiers on the battlefield for a while now; simply because it does enhance their cognitive performance and also allows them to eat less on the battlefield and have less blood sugar fluctuations.
I think if you’re kind of like that hunter-gatherer warrior type, if that’s your lifestyle, this stuff comes in pretty handy for that. I certainly think that, sounds like similar to you:
It wasn’t like Paleolithic man or our ancestors didn’t have any carbs at all, but for the amount that those people moved, they certainly had access to a lot fewer carbs than we do nowadays, in the era of vending machines and drive-through windows.
Yuri: Yeah, it’s not like they were picking up muffins on their way to kill a cow or something.
Ben: Yeah, unless they fell from heaven, sent by some great god in the sky.
Yuri: Starbucks heaven. So, before we end off, can you share some of the home-testing kits that you’ve used? I know you’ve used WellnessFX and some other ones. Can you briefly kind of describe two or three of your favorite ones and why you’ve used them?
Ben: WellnessFX would be one that would be U.S. only, and I think they’re planning on expanding nationally at some point. They’re based out of San Francisco, and they do full performance evaluations.
You order with them online. They send you, via e-mail, a PDF that you print out and you bring in to your local lab.
The lab looks at the PDF, and they know exactly what to draw, which blood draws to do based off of what you’ve chosen or purchased at WellnessFX. So, you’ve already paid when you walk into the lab; you don’t have to give the lab your credit card or anything like that.
They do the blood draw. Within a couple days—and this is where WellnessFX gets unique, ’cause what I’ve just described so far your doctor could do—within a couple days, you have online access to this full dashboard that shows you all your past testing results, it gives you an explanation of everything.
You don’t even really need a doctor to walk you through it, it’s so comprehensive but they also hook you up with a medical practitioner or a nutritionist or someone like that to actually interpret all your values and make recommendations to you. And then all your recommendations appear on that dashboard too.
You have all, complete control over everything from one source rather than having some folder in a drawer in your house, where you’re trying to keep track of stuff or a bunch of PDFs or whatever. It’s super convenient.
If you’re more of a take charge of your own health, I don’t really need the whole dashboard consultation thing, a couple of other things that work really well that I’ve used in the past. One is Direct Labs and Direct Labs is similar.
You order, you pay online, you get a PDF that gets sent to your house. Occasionally, you can order stool tests or saliva tests that you don’t even go to a lab for. They send ’em to your house, you drip the saliva into the tube or poop into the little tray or whatever, and you send that off and you get your results within usually about a week or two.
That one is good and the cool part of Direct Labs is it’s all like wholesale. You’ll get tests that you would normally pay, like, a thousand bucks for, you get ’em for, like, two hundred bucks off of there, just ’cause you’re bypassing most of the health care system and all the hoops you gotta jump through.
The other one that’s really cool that I like is this brand-new company. It’s the one that I’m using for this twelve-week experiment for Iron Man, simply because it sends a blood-spot card to your house, and you don’t have to go to a lab at all. My time is limited; I don’t have time to drive into the lab, which is, like, twenty minutes away and take the test and come back. It’s just easier for me if I can drip blood on a card in my kitchen.
This is a brand-new service. They use what’s called a spectra analysis to analyze your blood. All you need are, like, five drops of blood. This is totally new technology.
You send it back into them, and they actually can run, I think they’re up to thirty different parameters that they can get off a single drop of blood now, and they’re adding five or ten a month. Within a year, it’ll probably be hundreds of minerals and vitamins and hormones, inflammatory markers, everything; off one drop of blood from a finger. That one is called Talking 20.
Basically, I have twelve blood-spot cards from Talking 20, and every Tuesday morning I’m just going in and putting one drop of blood on five different spots on the card and then I just put that into an envelope, seal the envelope, and mail it back to Talking 20 and they get the results back to me. Those are three of the labs that I kind of like.
Yuri: That’s great. What’s really cool about a lot of this stuff is that they’re making really kind of innovative testing to give people more of a personalized approach to their health, accessible over the Web, pretty much. You can go to these Web sites and get this stuff sent to you, pretty much, which is awesome.
Ben: Yeah, for sure. And then next week I’m actually going in to the surgeon and having a giant chip implanted in my right butt cheek that’s just going to print out data that appears on a panel on my—no, I’m just kidding. Maybe. Maybe in a few years, that’ll be doable.
Yuri: Yeah, extracting data online.
Ben: Yeah, no. I say that in jest, but it is kind of true. There’ll be a point where you just get a nanotechnology chip that just circulates through your bloodstream twenty-four seven and splits out results, whatever, to a computer or to your Google glasses or whatever. I don’t think that that technology is too far away.
Yuri: No, not at all. That’s really cool. All right, awesome. Once again, guys, check out Ben’s stuff at BenGreenfieldFitness.com. He’s got a lot of great information, a lot of great programs.
Even if you’re not a triathlete, there’s a lot of wisdom to be had listening to his advice. He’s obviously a pretty smart dude. Any closing comments before we end off, buddy?
Ben: No, I think it’s super interesting stuff. I see so many, especially women, they just, like, mess up their bodies when they try and go low carb and fast and all this stuff.
You have to do it right. There are certain things that tend to be missing from our Western diet that if you just restrict carbs, you’re going to get selenium deficiencies, iodine deficiencies, fatty acid, amino acids sometimes tend to drop ironically. Make sure that you educate yourself and just be like, “Okay, I’m going to not eat any carbs for the next week and see what the heck happens.”
I just want to warn people: Don’t go willy-nilly into stuff like this, and make sure you kind of know what you’re doing.
Yuri: Yeah, awesome. Good advice. All right, well, I appreciate you taking the time, Ben. Hopefully, everyone else listening, I hope you guys got some really interesting insights from his experiment, which is currently underway. I’m sure we’ll get updated in a couple weeks, couple months.
Thanks again, buddy. Have a great day; enjoy the training, enjoy the eating, and we’ll talk to you guys soon.
Ben: Thanks, Yuri. Keep up the great work, man.
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